44th Session of the Human Rights Council: Interactive dialogue on Eritrea – ​Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea

30 June 2020

Madam President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

I am very pleased to join this session of the Human Rights Council and present my second annual report on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. I would like to begin by wishing all participants in this session good health and by thanking the organisers for facilitating my intervention.

Before turning to my report, I note that, like other countries across the globe, Eritrea has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, as the authorities have expanded their testing, the number of confirmed cases has increased, although the numbers reported remain low. We must be conscious, however, that the actual numbers will likely be higher. I am concerned that the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating the situation of famine and malnutrition that exists in parts of the country and is contributing to food shortages, in part due to the border closure and the restrictions on food imports currently in place. For example, recent reports indicate that disadvantaged populations in and around the towns of Massawa and Assab and in the regions bordering Ethiopia and Sudan have been experiencing severe food shortages. I urge the Eritrean authorities to ensure, with the assistance of their international partners, that emergency food supplies reach all segments of the population during this difficult period.

Turning now to my report, over this past year, I have seen no tangible evidence of a meaningful and substantive improvement in the situation of human rights in Eritrea. In my report, I have set out specific areas of concern in relation to five benchmarks for progress. In my remarks today, I wish to focus on three key areas where reforms would signal that Eritrea is moving in a positive direction.

First, to demonstrate progress in human rights, an important initial step is for the Eritrean authorities to address the situation of those arbitrarily and unlawfully detained and of those who have disappeared in the prison system. I have repeatedly raised this issue and have noted the lack of progress regarding the situation of political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and others arbitrarily and unlawfully detained. It is quite striking that the Eritrean authorities remain completely silent on this issue. There are many unanswered questions regarding individual cases. For example, where is Ciham Ali Abdu, held for almost 8 years, and when will she be released? After two years in detention, where is Berhane Abrehe and when will he be released? After 19 years in detention, where is Dawit Isaak and when will he be released? And when will the authorities release Paulos Eyasu, Isaac Mogos and Negede Teklemariam, three conscientious objectors held for 26 years? The Eritrean authorities will demonstrate their genuine commitment to human rights when they release those individuals arbitrarily held in Eritrean prisons and provide information about those who have disappeared to their families.

Second, to advance towards meaningful and sustainable development, Eritrea must invest in its youth. This requires the creation of positive conditions encouraging, among other things, youth to remain in the country. During this past year, we have seen a steady flow of youth fleeing from Eritrea. These young people are not leaving because they are being lured out of the country by the refugee camps in neighbouring Ethiopia, as the Eritrean authorities claim, but because they have no prospects for a future in Eritrea. Of particular concern is the high number of children among those leaving. Up until the Covid-19 travel restrictions came into effect in March, over 20 per cent of those fleeing from Eritrea to Ethiopia on a monthly basis were unaccompanied children. More than 40 per cent of Eritrean refugees currently living in camps in Ethiopia are children. In the early months of this year, around 10 per cent of Eritrean refugees crossing into Sudan were unaccompanied minors. While we are now living in unusual times due to the Covid-19 pandemic and travel and movement restrictions are in effect, once these restrictions are eased, this exodus of Eritrea’s youth will continue. It is difficult to envisage a sustainable and prosperous future for Eritrea without its young people. As I have outlined in detail in my report, for Eritrea to support its youth, reforms are needed on various fronts, including in job creation, in the promotion of civil liberties, in education and in the national service.

Third, to build the foundations for a thriving society, the Eritrean authorities must open civic space for independent civil society. Today, there is no space for independent human rights defenders, members of political opposition and independent journalists. In this last year, we have witnessed the increased shrinking of civic space in Eritrea, with the arrests of practitioners of different religious congregations during prayer gatherings, of members of minority groups and of persons who have expressed dissent. In several instances, institutions that have called for reforms and have questioned the actions of the government have themselves faced reprisals, as in the case of the Catholic Church and of various Islamic institutions. An open civic space is a basic pillar for the success of any nation.

Finally, I wish to note that after almost two years of joining this Council, Eritrea has yet to cooperate with my mandate and with other UN special procedures. The Eritrean authorities have complained that my report presents a distorted picture of the situation in the country. At the same time, the authorities continue to deny me access to the country, refuse to meet with me and do not respond to my requests for input to my reports. In my previous interventions before this Council, I have openly invited the Eritrean authorities to discuss human rights issues with me, and I remain willing to engage in constructive dialogue with them.

Given that this is the eighth year since the creation of this mandate, I wish that I could present a more positive report on the human rights situation in Eritrea. But due to the lack of progress, I cannot. I urge the Eritrean authorities to be forward looking and to introduce much needed reforms to ensure the full enjoyment of basic rights for all Eritreans.

Thank you for your attention.

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